Skip to main content

Policemen try to disperse hundreds of migrants by spraying them with fire extinguishers during a registration procedure which was taking place at the stadium of Kos town, on the southeastern island of Kos, Greece, Tuesday. Fights broke out among migrants on the island where overwhelmed authorities are struggling to contain increasing numbers of people arriving clandestinely on rubber dinghies from the nearby Turkish shore.Yorgos Karahalis/The Associated Press

On this sunny Greek island accustomed to dealing with nothing more than a summer influx of tourists, authorities are struggling to handle a far different human tide: tens of thousands of migrants arriving in crammed rubber dinghies in hopes of making new lives in Europe.

Overwhelmed police clerks used fire extinguishers and batons on Tuesday to quell the crowds of weary and frustrated boat people fiercely jostling to be registered in Kos's main port, where thousands have been sleeping rough for days waiting for temporary travel documents.

The migrants, mostly refugees from war-torn Syria, make their way across the narrow strait that separates Kos from Turkey in their hundreds every day – desperate men, women and children risking the sometimes fatal crossing in flimsy boats in the hope of gaining asylum in northern Europe.

What they ask of Greece is one piece of paper, which will record their refugee status.

"We just want to leave this island, and they don't understand that," said Laith Saleh, a 30-year-old former plasterer from Aleppo, who fled Syria last month after spending three years fighting Syrian government forces and Islamic State group extremists. "We can't get on the boat to Athens if we don't have the papers."

Kos, like other Greek islands close to the Turkish seaboard, is ill-equipped to handle the wave of newcomers, its experience with troublesome visitors having previously been limited to drunken tourists. More than 125,000 people have entered this financially broken country by sea since January, a staggering 750 per cent increase over the same period last year and more than in the whole of 2014 and 2013 together.

Police data show that nearly 30,000 people have been detained for illegally entering Kos and its smaller outlying islands so far this year – just short of its total population. According to local authorities, at least 5,000 are now trapped on the island due to the registration backlog.

Mr. Saleh said he spent nine hours on Monday waiting fruitlessly with several hundred others to be registered in an old football stadium that is now the island's main processing centre. "There were four people doing the registration," he said. "Today there is just one."

Police have sent additional staff to help the process – and were also flying in two riot police units to help control the crowds.

As tempers frayed Tuesday, hundreds of refugees and economic migrants briefly blocked the port's main coastal road, demanding quicker registration.

"We want papers! We want to leave!" they chanted.

Similar protests and tension have occurred on several of the islands bearing the brunt of the migrant influx in recent weeks, including Lesbos, where the majority of new arrivals land.

"We tell them that if they want to leave the island, we want it 10 times more," said Theodossis Paraschos, one of a group of local men gathered outside the old stadium advising the migrants to queue in a more orderly way.

"The problem (of migrant arrivals) has increased very, very fast. The solution must come from a central government level – and soon," Mr. Paraschos said. "People are starting to act mad. Earlier, a car driver out here tried to run the crowd over. Some people just have no brains."

The challenges for Kos's residents are evident.

Tourism is the island's key industry, and official data show a 7.3 decline in the first seven months of 2015, a toll local businesses blame on the migrant influx.

Lack of planning led to thousands of migrants, including many families, sleeping outdoors or in tents in public parks, along the town's beachfront or in the port's landmark medieval fort. Meanwhile, droves of tourists cycle past, while others fill restaurants and coffee shops.

"Seventy per cent of our local economy is based on tourism – a five-and-a-half-month season," said Kos taxi driver Yiannis Kefalianos. "Tourists don't like the sight (of the camped migrants). They feel sorry for them, of course, but they shouldn't be out there in tents in the harbour or the parks."

Kos Mayor Giorgos Kyritsis promised to evict the refugees from public areas, and municipal officials have been doing so since Monday. But there is nowhere the migrants can go while they wait for their papers, other than the sunbaked stadium.

Mr. Saleh said that while he was waiting in line at the stadium, his tent and belongings were confiscated by municipal workers. "Now I have no water, no food, I lost my phone. And everything is so expensive here."

Still, he hopes to eventually make his way through the Balkans to the Netherlands, where he said he would feel secure.

"Then I will get my papers and bring my family, my wife and three-year-old son, who was just 28 days old when I started fighting. There were times when he couldn't remember me I had been away fighting for so long."

Mr. Saleh, who has shrapnel scars on his face and leg, was in action in Kobani and Aleppo, where 35 of his 40-strong unit were killed. He eventually entered Turkey and made his way to Bodrum, opposite Kos, from where he made the crossing in four hours, crammed in a rubber boat with dozens of other people.

On his first day in Kos, he was evicted from a supermarket where he tried to buy food.

"Maybe they looked at my face," he said.